Thursday, May 07, 2015

on reparadigming the language curriculum

You think about stuff when you're taking a long walk, and I was no exception on Tuesday. As I hiked up and down Namsan's flanks, I found myself pondering the university language-teaching curriculum with which many of us expats are familiar. And it slowly dawned on me that there may be something fundamentally wrong with it.

My current university takes a fairly standard approach in curriculum design: there are listening/speaking courses that are taught during the spring (I'm teaching those right now), and there are reading/writing courses that get taught in the fall. Separating the four macroskills in this fashion has been traditional: the dichotomy is made between the written word and the spoken word. I'm not going to bother to do research on the history of this curriculum, but I think it's safe to assume that such a curriculum has been around for a while, at least here in Korea (if you're a Hairy Chasms reader who teaches EFL outside of Korea, please feel free to leave a comment that explains how things go in the country you're in).

But why are the macroskills separated out this way? Neither side of the dichotomy—the written on one side, the unwritten on the other—is given pride of place, despite the fact that most of us teachers understand that, historically speaking, the unwritten came first. This is shown time and again in fields like scriptural studies: the earliest religious scriptures of a given tradition almost always read like poetry because they are poetry: poetry, with its lyrical patterns and repetitions, is easy to memorize and recite, a good vehicle for passing along an unwritten history, mythology, etc. Early written traditions always arise out of oral traditions; hebraic and Hindu culture, in particular, attest to this, but you can also see something like this tradition arising among illiterate African slaves in the United States during that shameful period of our history: unlettered, the slaves developed songs that allowed them to crystallize and memorize biblical content—the central ideas and doctrines if not the specific chapters and verses. My point is that, for all cultures, the spoken comes first.

This makes it somewhat confusing, to me, as to why we divide language-learning into speaking/listening, on one hand, and reading/writing on the other, then give both sides of the dichotomy equal emphasis. Why equal? Already, something smells wrong here.

Recently, I was giving my students the postmortem after having passed back their midterms, upon which I had written their scores—their midterm score plus their current semester grade. I noted that most of the mistakes the students had made during their oral interviews with me had been grammatical in nature, which led me to the question of why this might be so. "Koreans students are good at grammar," the wisdom (or the myth) goes, yet these same students, despite doing fairly well on TOEFL-style grammar questions, fare horribly the moment they're asked to produce anything, either verbally or in writing.

I explained the linguistic theory that, inside our heads, there exist two "libraries," so to speak: the passive and the active. There's passive vocabulary and grammar, and there's active vocabulary and grammar. From when we're newborns up to about year one, when we all generally utter our very first word, our brains are self-wiring, and we're busily absorbing massive amounts of ambient language in the home and neighborhood environment. We can't say anything, but we're beginning to recognize that certain sounds apply to certain objects, ideas, and actions. Around our first birthday, we finally struggle to push out a "ma-ma" or "da-da" (or the Korean equivalent), and thus begins our lifelong foray into developing active vocabulary and grammar.

So from the beginning, there's a mismatch in the sizes of our respective passive/active libraries: passive vocabulary gets a one-year head start, and it'll be even more long years before the active vocabulary truly begins to catch up. Roughly the same process occurs when we begin picking up a second language, although "L2" (i.e., second-language) learning is usually a more explicit, self-conscious process than is the acquisition of "L1."* One of the goals, in teaching language, is to get students to equalize their passive and active libraries.

There is, as you can imagine, a logical link between those two libraries: if you have no passive vocabulary, then you can't have an active vocabulary. Put more simply: if you know no words, you can produce no words (except maybe randomly). So the active depends, to some degree, on the passive for its existence. But despite that logical connection, the practical connection between the two libraries is tenuous, at least at first: you might have a huge storehouse of passive vocabulary and grammar, but this doesn't imply that you'll produce much. (I discuss that topic here.)

This, then, is why Korean students perform fairly well on grammar tests but fail to produce reliably grammatical utterances and locutions when speaking and writing. It's not that they've forgotten the grammar: it's more that their active-grammar libraries are fairly atrophied.

I gave this spiel four times, to all four of my classes. It was only while I was hiking up and down Namsan, however, that the import of what I had been telling my students really sank in: if Korean students at the university level are generally good performers when it comes to listening and reading, why do we emphasize those skills as we do? What the students really need, I realized, was more help with the productive macroskills: speaking and writing.

This thought immediately gave birth to two corollaries: (1) the current curricular dichotomy that puts listening/speaking on one side of the wall, and reading/writing on the other, is woefully mistaken; and (2) the passive macroskills (listening/reading) need to be severely de-emphasized to make more room for a robust speaking/writing curriculum.

That, in a nutshell, is my revolutionary thought.

Imagine a Korean-university English curriculum that places a 70/30 emphasis on productive macroskills: students must primarily focus on writing and speaking. The reduced emphasis on reading/listening will mean, positively, that reading and listening courses will have to concentrate only on relevant essentials for Korean students: academic work and the practical issues that may come with living abroad. Speaking and writing courses, meanwhile, will have free rein to blossom into a whole panoply of course options, from theater to lit-discussion classes to courses that focus on conversational, practical, and debating skills. Some of those classes might be more atomistic in emphasis (e.g., pronunciation, intonation, vocabulary usage, etc.); some might be more holistic (e.g., a cooking class in which a variety of skills are applied to concrete situations, or a drama class in which students not only learn lines but also discuss character motivation, plot elements, story structure, etc.), but taken as a whole, the language department's mandate is the cultivation of improved productive performance.

I've seen this in my own classes: in my current listening/speaking courses, the kids easily breeze through the listening exercises, which often feel like a waste of time. They already know most of the vocabulary that the textbook introduces to them, and they're impatient to get to the speaking tasks. This, to me, is evidence that we need to spend far less time on the passive macroskills and far more on the active ones.

Obviously, I haven't fleshed this insight out into something more practical, but I don't think it would be too hard to do so. I expect that, if I were to propose such a reparadigming to my higher-ups and colleagues, there would be plenty of resistance, mainly because of the force of tradition, which is a bogus argument for remaining in an unhealthy status quo.

But it might be worth a try.

*Among linguistic theorist Stephen Krashen's five famous hypotheses is the "acquisition/learning" hypothesis, which distinguishes the two concepts this way: acquisition is something like the osmotic absorption of language, such as what happens during the first few years of life, when we're generally listening but not talking that much or that coherently. It's a fairly unconscious process that involves little mental effort. Learning is a more explicitly conscious (or self-conscious) process in which explicit rules and techniques are laid out—often in a formalized situation as can be found in a classroom—and expounded upon.


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